For my own pleasure and education, I write personal critiques of popular books, books I admire, and books I think would be better used to level a wobbly table. I record my thoughts on voice, style, and especially great passages. I also write down weaknesses and issues I find grating. Recently, while reading through a critique I’d written on a well-known crime writer’s novel, I came across this note I wrote to myself:
The lead character is a former Army Recon sniper, now a forensic expert despite a career spent only as a beat cop. He’s sexy, willing to sacrifice anything for a friend, a former friend, or a loved one without complaint. Children and animals like him. In short, he’s phony as a $3 bill.
Please…I want my heroes to be tough, sophisticated, and softies at heart. But when the protagonist can’t be beat at anything, is morally superior than everyone around him, has the answers and the experience to respond to any situation, the air goes out of the balloon.
Inner turmoil, self-doubts, shady pasts (that actually affect him or her…not token problems) are not contradictory to having a compelling lead character and, in fact—as story-tellers have known for several thousand years—actually the key to creating a powerful, memorable protagonist and a moving story.
The Flawed Protagonist is nothing new or groundbreaking. Where is Samson without his vanity? King Arthur without his bad judgment and wounded pride? Would we care as much about Philip Marlowe if he didn’t have a shaky set of ethics? Robert Parker’s Spenser stopped being interesting once he became bullet-proof and unquestioning. When his self-doubts vanished, so did our deeper interest…the later Spenser for Hire books are worth reading only to see what new crooks get their asses kicked by the Boston PI and Hawk.
Broken lives need a less-than-perfect protagonist. Anything else becomes a cartoon and at that point we’re just killing time until the hero is admitted into the Justice League. Subsequent novels become conflicts not with antagonists (because they aren’t true challenges to our hero), but with abstract elements, like time (defuse the bomb) or a natural crisis (a volcano!). And these are fine forces to array yourself against. But they aren’t interesting characters and they don’t allow the protagonist to mature or grow.
Keep your Superman. I’ll take a flawed Philip Marlowe any day.